Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on a visit to Brussels in 2011. (photo: NATO)
NATO formally opened its liaison office in Uzbekistan on Friday, a year after it started working and amid heightened Russian rhetoric about the western alliance encroaching on its backyard.
The opening itself was not a big deal: it only formalized a move that happened last year, which was itself described by NATO officials as just a "rotation" of NATO's representation in Central Asia from Astana to Tashkent. (NATO calls the new structure in Tashkent a "liaison office," while the preferred phrase in the Russian-language press seems to be the much more impressive-sounding "staff headquarters.") Nevertheless, the opening ceremony was held in a very different geopolitical atmosphere than obtained last year, and so it was inevitable that people would seek to try to figure out what it really meant.
Uzbekistan is unmistakably taking a different path than that of its neighbors. While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are all (to varying degrees) participating in Russia's economic and military integration schemes, Uzbekistan has resisted. And strategic concerns have overridden Western qualms about human rights, notes Tolganay Umbetaliyeva, the director of the Kazakhstan-based Central Asian Fund for the Development of Democracy. "In spite of the fact that after the Andijan events of 2005 relations between Uzbekistan and the West sharply deteriorated, their recent improvement can be seen as the West's response to the various integration processes of the post-Soviet Central Asian states and Russia in various spheres," she told RFE/RL.
Screen shot of a Chinese state television report on the visit of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to Beijing.
China and Turkmenistan have agreed to establish a "strategic partnership" during a visit by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to Beijing. With Turkmenistan, China now has strategic partnerships with all five Central Asian states; it established them last year with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
While talk of strategic partnerships may be cheap, there's no doubt that China takes its relationship with Turkmenistan seriously. Berdymukhammedov got a pretty impressive welcome in Beijing, and the People's Liberation Army even took the occasion to debut its first ever female honor guards who, as the South China Morning Post put it, "apparently left an impression" on Berdymukhammedov:
Clad in skirts, riding boots and hair pulled back into the classic chignon, 13 women soldiers from China’s military debuted as honour guards on Monday to welcome the visiting Turkmenistan president.
They are the first female People’s Liberation Army honour guards since the squad was established in 1952. Their attire of knee-high skirts and five-centimetre heels singled them out from the rows and rows of sober, hunter-green uniforms of their male comrades.
Their presence apparently left an impression on President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who is in China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping.
“It’s very nice, very good,” Berdimuhamedov said of the female soldiers.
China-Turkmenistan ties are, of course, focused on energy. Just last week Berdymukhammedov inaugurated two new Chinese-built gas processing facilities, and gas exports are scheduled to increase from about 25 billion cubic meters this year to 65 billion in 2020.
Presidents of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan watch a military exercise from the Kremlin. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin convened an "informal" summit of his allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization last week as Moscow faced continued international isolation over its role in the Ukraine crisis. But the event only highlighted the misgivings of Russia's foreign policy direction, even among its closest allies.
For one, there was the absence of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of CSTO member Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the CSTO member with the most international stature (outside of Russia); with Kazakhstan the group hardly presents an impressive front; without it, remaining CSTO allies Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are an even more motley crew.
And Nazarbayev's excuse was one unlikely to elicit understanding from the Kremlin: he had to stay in Astana to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. And Burns, after meeting with Nazarbayev, told the local press that he had brought the message from Washington that "so long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path, we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure." The jilted CSTO allies continued on undaunted; It seems the words "Nazarbayev" or "Kazakhstan" were not uttered at the meeting, in public anyway, and the Kremlin account did not mention the fact that it was called under the auspices of the CSTO (though the CSTO itself did).
Georgia is close to releasing a long-awaited official review of the 2008 South Ossetia war. And while critics of the government have expressed concern that the report will be a politically motivated attack on the former government, led by President Mikhail Saakashvili, the current defense minister is instead emphasizing how the report will have lessons for Ukraine as it, too, struggles with Russia.
At the end of April, the defense ministry announced that it had finished the report. That it was commissioned shortly after Saakashvili's defeat made some think it was going to be an attempt to blame him, rather than Russia, for the war. Alasania denied this last April: "Russia started an aggressive war campaign against Georgia, a sovereign country, and occupied its territories. No-one questioned this and no-one will question it in the future." Instead, Alasania insisted that the report would be focused on military, rather than political, questions and would be used to plan future development of the armed forces. That criticism has not gone away, with Saakashvili's United National Movement claiming "that the research might be politically motivated, aiming at political pressure on the [UNM] prior to the local self-government elections scheduled for June 15."
A Buyan-class corvette in the Caspian Sea; more soon headed for the Black Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on Tuesday said that the plan for the Black Sea Fleet renovation would be altered in light of the annexation of Crimea. He didn't give a tremendous number of details about what that might mean, but we are learning a bit more now about the Black Sea Fleet "development plan" that Shoigu's boss, Vladimir Putin, announced recently.
Most of the headlines about Shoigu's comments, both in the Russian- and English-language press focused on his mention of adding new ships and submarines to the fleet. But that was already planned long ago; the shifts as a result of the Crimea annexation are not (yet) too substantial.
Mikhail Barabanov, a naval analyst at the Moscow Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told The Bug Pit that a development plan for the Black Sea Fleet announced in 2008 has not been changed too much. Under that program, the Black Sea Fleet was slated to get six new frigates and six new submarines. While it had appeared that the sixth frigate may be in danger because of budget reasons, that has now been reversed: Putin "personally" ordered the sixth frigate to be reinstated, Barabanov said. Barabanov also said that three light guided missile corvettes that had been slated for the Caspian Flotilla now appear to be headed to the Black Sea (to augment seven such ships already designated for the Black Sea Fleet). "But all this is hardly a significant increase in strength," Barabanov said,
A 2012 Georgian postage stamp celebrating the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new deadline for a new railway line that would connect the Caspian Sea to Turkey appears to be delayed yet again, making it highly unlikely that Georgia and Azerbaijan will profit much from U.S. military transportation business.
The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey met in Tbilisi on Wednesday, and the focus was "joint energy and transportation projects, among them Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway." This is the railroad that last year the three countries had been promoting as the centerpiece of their proposal to gain a significant share of the "retrograde" transit of U.S. military equipment out of Afghanistan and back to Europe and the U.S. The idea would be to ship equipment through Central Asia, over the Caspian Sea, and through the South Caucasus. The railroad was "the vital missing link which will be operational soon," said Batu Kutelia, deputy secretary in the office of national security, said at the time. A senior Turkish official said the railroad would be operational by the end of 2013 and that "taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process."
This would be a geopolitical winner from the Pentagon's perspective, as it would decrease the U.S.'s reliance on the mercurial Pakistan and the new enemy, Russia. As an analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation wrote this week:
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, visits Hairatan in 2010. (photo: ISAF)
Since the rail line between the Uzbekistan border town of Hairatan and Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, opened in 2011, news about its operations have been hard to come by. But it is apparently running in relative safety (contrary to some previous suggestions) and under Uzbekistan's control. That's according to a dispatch from Hairatan by American newspaper Fayetteville Observer, the local paper of some of the U.S. Army reservists who are managing the rail line (and flagged by the excellent Railways of Afghanistan blog).
The railroad, recall, was built by Uzbekistan Railways with money from the Asian Development Bank after American military logisticians identified the Uzbekistan border as the most troublesome bottleneck in getting supplies into Afghanistan.
Since then, Uzbekistan and the Northern Distribution Network generally have declined in significance to the U.S. military, which now relies much more heavily on Pakistan. But, as one U.S. soldier told the Observer: "This gives us an alternative in case Pakistan closes... It gives us negotiating leverage in Pakistan. If you guys don't play ball with us, there is another way out." Still, about 4,600 rail cars ply the Hairaton-Mazar route every month, and about 90 percent of the fuel used by coalition forces in Afghanistan travels on the rail line.
Three years after opening, Uzbekistan still operates the railroad, the piece reports:
[T]he railroad between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif is operated by Uzbekistan as part of an agreement between that country and Afghanistan. It was built by the Asian Development Bank using donations from across the world, and the Uzbek government - not Afghanistan - collects money from the imports.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)
With the crisis in Ukraine, Georgia's efforts to join NATO have gained new energy. And while Tbilisi hasn't changed its ultimate aim -- gaining the elusive Membership Action Plan for the alliance -- it is coming up with some new proposals to gain closer cooperation with its western military partners.
Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is on a visit to Washington, and in addition to meeting with various U.S. government officials he also made a public appearance at a conference, where he advocated placing NATO "defensive assets" in Georgia, reports Civil.ge: "Air defense and anti-armor capabilities – 'this is something we need to put in Georgia and Russians will understand that you are serious,'” Alasania said."
It's noteworthy that this formulation -- "defensive" anti-aircraft and anti-armor weapons -- is exactly that used by former President Mikhail Saakashvili. But where Saakashvili wanted the U.S. to give him those weapons, Alasania here is asking that NATO allies put them in Georgia.
We'll see what comes of that proposal. Meanwhile, the alliance is getting ready for its summit this fall in Wales, and all eyes are on what the alliance may do to signal support for Georgia. Tbilisi is still pushing for MAP, although Alasania acknowledged in his remarks in Washington that it was an uphill battle:
“It is also important for the United States to show leadership… to make sure that next steps that NATO will make, for example at the summit in September, will be adequate response to what’s happening in Ukraine,” the Georgian Defense Minister said.
“We are talking about the Membership Action Plan, but we don’t really know how these discussions will end up, while, honestly, in fact after [developments in] Ukraine we should be talking about accession talks of Georgia and other aspirants to NATO,” he said.
The Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry is looking into reports that volunteers from Kazakhstan are among the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The "people's mayor" of the breakaway town of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, told Time magazine that "his militia force... is made up partly of volunteers who have come from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union." And a member of the Russian "Eurasian Youth Union" organizing volunteers to support pro-Russian forces in Ukraine told the newspaper Izvestia that they had been in touch with "thousands of people from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vorkuta, Irkutsk, other Russian cities, even the Cossack community from eastern Kazakhstan has responded."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurzhan Aitmakhanov told Tengrinews.kz: "We have paid attention to various media reports that allege that 'among the militias in Slavyansk are volunteers from Kazakhstan.' We note that in the reports there are no specific names or documents proving the citizenship of the volunteers. As a result it's not possible to confirm the information. We consider the reports groundless." But he said the ministry and other relevant organs will keep looking into the reports.